Vouching for Indiana

How vouchers transformed Indiana: Private schools now live or die by test scores, too

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy Middle School take the same standardized test as their peers at public schools.

When Indiana gave out school ratings last fall, Central Christian Academy’s board called an emergency meeting.

The school had gotten another D, and once again it would not be able to receive new vouchers, the public money that Indiana gives many families to help pay private school tuition.

With Central Christian cut off from hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid, board members contemplated closing the school.

Losing voucher dollars was “catastrophic,” said David Sexauer, who served on the board before taking over as head of school this year. “If it wasn’t for the fact that the church was willing to step in and help us kind of keep going, we would’ve had to close our doors.”

Ultimately, Central Christian Academy had its grade revised upward to an A because of changes to the way Indiana evaluates schools and its own improved passing rate on state tests. Now, instead of closing down, the school is hoping another round of solid scores this year will allow it to begin accepting vouchers again.

“It was like a roller coaster,” said Principal Melanie Sims.

Central Christian’s experience reflects a defining feature of Indiana’s school voucher program: Private schools can live or die by test scores the way that public schools often do, in an arrangement that divides school-choice advocates.

In the five years since Indiana began offering vouchers, the program has grown into one of the largest in the nation, and about $146 million in public funding was funneled to Indiana private schools through vouchers this year. But that money comes with strings attached, and low test scores have cost 16 schools the right to accept new vouchers. At least three have closed.

“I can’t think of any way you could make the program more accountable,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-voucher Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Indiana’s accountability requirements, he said, are at the “far end of the spectrum.”

Most states with voucher programs impose regulations on private schools that accept the public funds, but those guidelines vary widely. Some programs have health and safety requirements, in Florida new schools must show proof of financial stability, and in Louisiana schools are not allowed to use selective admission for students receiving vouchers.

But the question that generates the most controversy is whether and how voucher-funded schools should be held accountable for helping students learn.

Many voucher advocates — including American Federation for Children, the pro-voucher advocacy group U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos headed before joining the Trump administration — say they’re open to seeing students who use vouchers take tests, but don’t push for individual schools’ scores to be provided to anyone but parents and academic researchers. That’s the course that North Carolina has so far taken and that the federal government charted for the Washington, D.C. voucher program.

Other states have chosen to have voucher students take state exams to allow for comparisons between private and public schools. Some of them even penalize schools whose voucher students’ scores are low.

Indiana goes a step further: It not only requires students who are receiving vouchers to take state tests, it also requires private schools to test students who are not receiving state aid. Those test results, and other measures like graduation rates, are used to assess private schools with the same yardstick as charter and traditional public schools — A-F grades from the Indiana Department of Education. When schools have chronically low grades, the state sanctions them by reducing their access to vouchers.

Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat
Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

So why did Indiana — which has embraced so many elements of the school choice agenda, including charter schools, open enrollment across district lines and vouchers — come to accept this requirement?

One explanation is that the state’s voucher program was born at a time of peak accountability fervor in Indiana. Former-Gov. Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett were pushing for dramatic changes in education policy, including a new focus on punishing public schools with chronically low test scores.

The other answer: sports and the other benefits for private schools that were already contingent upon state testing in Indiana.

Many private schools were already taking state tests and getting letter grades before lawmakers rolled out the voucher program in order to get state accreditation — a badge of approval. Some Indiana schools were eager for state accreditation because it was a prerequisite for them to participate in the state’s high school sports association, said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, which represents private schools across the state.

But mainly, state accreditation was a way for private schools — including many Catholic and Lutheran schools — to show parents they were on par with public alternatives and get access to state grants, Elcesser said.

“For those schools, it was a very easy lift coming into the voucher program,” he said, “because most of the requirements they were already meeting.”

The unusual reality in Indiana before vouchers, with many private school students already taking state tests, allowed lawmakers to easily decide the crucial question of what to do about testing in private schools. But nationally, it’s a question that has ignited vigorous debate among voucher advocates and private school leaders.

Private schools often choose to administer a national standardized test in order to give parents more information on how their children are doing. Joe McTighe of the Council for American Private Education, a national umbrella group, said he’s comfortable with having that be required in exchange for getting public funds, but not with requiring private schools to administer state tests.

“We prefer a really light touch when it comes to accountability,” McTighe said.

Voucher advocates often argue that private schools don’t need to be measured with state tests because there is another form of accountability: parent choice.

That’s what Jay Greene argues. Greene, who heads the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, has written that test scores don’t capture long-term benefits from schools like graduation rates and earning potential. And they don’t measure important issues like school culture.

Parents have “a lot more information on average than do well-meaning but distant bureaucrats,” Greene said. “I’m not saying that this is scientific, but the science is even cruder than the kind of information that parents have.”

But many school choice advocates say parent judgments alone aren’t enough to ensure quality. That includes Sexauer of Central Christian, who says he still supports accountability measures for voucher-funded schools even after watching his school come near to closing.

“Parents don’t know everything,” Sexauer said. “Parents are not professional educators. Parents don’t ask the same kinds of questions that the department of education is going to ask.”

When taxpayer dollars are on the line, the state should do its best to ensure those schools are teaching students, said Fordham’s Petrilli.

“If we have data — especially some kind of growth data — and it shows that kids are not learning anything in that school year after year, I think that is clearly a waste of taxpayer funds,” Petrilli said. “There’s an appropriate government role in … saying, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a handful of schools that are so low-performing that we’re not going to allow them to be a part of the program.'”

Making sure vouchers don’t allow students to end up where they learn less: that’s the reason for Indiana’s strict accountability rules. But Central Christian’s experience illustrates the challenge that can pose for schools, too.

Vouchers themselves were a boon for the school, which had been shrinking as congregants from the affiliated church migrated to the suburbs. The state funding attracted low-income families from the neighborhood, and enrollment at the tiny school swelled. At its peak, more than 60 percent of students received state aid.

Many of those students were less prepared than past students had been — and less likely to post high test scores, Sexauer said. “We weren’t used to that.”

Meanwhile, Indiana has spent years grappling with changing standards, tests and accountability systems. That means the academic success of private schools, like public schools, is being judged by a set of particularly controversial and imperfect measures.

Indiana’s policies actually give private schools an even shorter and stricter timeline to improve than public schools face. If a private school gets a D or F grade from the state for two consecutive years, it is no longer eligible to receive vouchers for new students.

That’s what brought Central Christian to the brink of closing. But the school is on track to get new vouchers again. Its score jumped when the state changed how it measures schools to give them more credit for “student growth.” Now, even if children are not passing the state test, schools can earn high marks if their students see their scores rise over time. Central Christian officials say the change helped a lot.

Even before the grading shift, the school made changes that advocates of strong accountability could tout as a success — and a few that advocates for an unfettered school-choice marketplace see as worrying.

The prospect of losing state funding meant that Central Christian leaders went all in on a plan to improve teaching and test scores and to do a better job with students who came in behind. They brought in an outside consultant who helped revamp their instruction, building in more regular teacher training and adding more tests to see what students were learning throughout the year.

And they started following the state’s blueprint for what students should learn, and when. Before Central Christian started taking vouchers, Sims said she was a bit “oblivious” to state standards or tests. But now school leaders use Indiana’s standards to make sure that students on are track to know material by testing time.

For some choice advocates, that illustrates what’s wrong with Indiana’s strict accountability system. One reason why McTighe criticizes mandated state testing for private schools is because it pressures private schools to follow state standards, teaching the same material in the same order as public schools.

“If every school is the same, there is no choice,” McTighe said. “We have replaced genuine school choice with kind of an appearance of school choice.”

Vouching for Indiana

A quiet change in Indiana law could mean a bigger voucher program — and a wild ride for families

PHOTO: Google Street View
Young Minds Preparatory School was part of the Milwaukee voucher program for 9 years before it was barred for failing to provide financial documents and proof of financial viability. Nearly 70 percent of startup schools in the Milwaukee voucher program eventually closed.

When Milwaukee started letting families use public dollars to pay for private, religious schools, the city’s private school sector responded by growing — fast and chaotically.

One-hundred and twenty-one new private schools opened between 1991 and 2015 in the city. But nearly 70 percent of those schools later closed, often displacing students from poor families.

That hasn’t happened in Indiana, even as the state’s voucher program has grown to be one of the most expansive in the country.

Only about 20 voucher-funded schools opened statewide after Indiana started offering vouchers five years ago, and almost all of them are still in operation. Many factors likely influenced Indiana’s experience, but one of the most significant is a one-year waiting period for new schools to receive vouchers — a waiting period that lawmakers are on the cusp of eliminating.

A bill that quietly crossed a crucial legislative hurdle last week would allow private schools to begin receiving state funding from their first day of operation.

As it stands, private schools must operate for a year before they are accredited by the state education department, a mark of approval that’s required to accept vouchers. That means new schools have to pay for their first year by fundraising or persuading families to pay tuition. They can’t rely on voucher funding from the start.

That delay creates “a massive barrier” for new schools, said Michael Ford, a professor at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh who has studied the private school landscape in Milwaukee extensively. “It’s a heck of a lot easier” for schools to persuade parents to spend public dollars on tuition rather than their own money, he said.

“If you had fewer barriers to entry,” he said, “I think you would see an explosion of startup schools in urban areas.”

Many of the private schools that have opened already had a toehold in Indiana and were able to get state money immediately. When the Oaks Academy, for example, opened a new campus in Indianapolis in 2015, it had access to voucher funding without waiting because all of the network’s schools have the same board and management team, said CEO Andrew Hart.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Oaks Academy Middle School started accepting vouchers immediately because it was part of an accredited network.

There are enticing reasons to make it easier for private schools to open, including the prospect of attracting successful schools from other cities. Voucher advocates point to Fugee Academy, a private school in Georgia that educates refugees, as an example of a school interested in expanding to Indiana.

Fugee, which opened a decade ago, is tuition-free and depends on donations. When school leaders decided to open a second campus, they knew it would have to be in a city with vouchers, said CEO Luma Mufleh.

“The work we do is hard enough,” she said, “so if we can take away a little bit of the fundraising, it just makes it easier.”

Fugee quickly narrowed its search to Indiana and Ohio, Mufleh said. But the wait for voucher dollars in Indiana was a deal breaker. When it came to deciding on a location, “it wasn’t about flipping a coin,” Mufleh said. “Ohio has a better option for us right now.”

Making access to vouchers easier for new schools, however, could have broad implications, and Milwaukee offers a cautionary tale: Low barriers to entry for private schools created an unstable market where schools routinely closed.

For many years, private schools in that city just had to file a form with the state, find a building and attract students in order to get voucher funds, Ford said. That helped create an environment where schools opened at a rapid clip — as many as 16 in one year — but the vast majority eventually shut down. As a result, students experienced upheaval in their schooling, something research says can contribute to behavior problems, disengagement and lower test scores.

“You had this kind of perfect storm where it’s really easy to open, really difficult to establish yourself,” Ford said. “There (were) just incredible amounts of organizational churn.”

That churn is an inherent part of the competitive market envisioned by economist Milton Friedman, who sparked the voucher movement with an essay published in 1955. When parents can choose from a panoply of schools and schools must attract students to survive, schools inevitably close. In fact, although Wisconsin imposes lots of regulations on schools that distort his vision, Friedman cited Milwaukee’s vigorous private school marketplace as a model 15 years ago.

If the government offered vouchers that equaled public school spending, he wrote, “the quality of schooling — in both public and private schools — would soar as competition worked its magic.”

But while Friedman and many voucher advocates believe that allowing more private schools to open will improve school quality through competition, others are wary of the prospect, citing concerns about instability for families and added potential for low-quality schools.

Schools cannot be run like restaurants or other businesses because students are hurt when they close, said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

“When you’re talking about human beings, it’s a whole different ball game,” she said. “Kids get harmed in the process.”

Currently, Indiana’s department of education tracks private schools for a year before approving their accreditation applications, said Maggie Paino, the state director of school accountability. The bill that has passed the House and Senate would allow — but not require — the state board to accredit schools immediately, giving them access to voucher funding. It will head back to lawmakers for final approval before it lands on Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Not everyone is convinced that the rule change would dramatically increase the number of new private schools. Betsy Wiley of the Institute for Quality Education, which advocates for vouchers in Indiana, said her group hears from a few schools each year, like Fugee, that are stymied by the state’s limits on vouchers in the first year.

“I don’t see this as a floodgate,” she said. “I see this as a couple to maybe a handful of schools that this will help.”

PHOTO: Dustin Chamber, courtesy of Fugee Academy.
Fugee Academy is planning to expand to the midwest. Founder Luma Mufleh said the school chose Ohio because vouchers are not available to Indiana schools during the first year.

Robert Enlow, who leads EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that advocates for vouchers across the country, said Indianapolis won’t have the kind of explosive growth seen in Milwaukee unless the state increases the dollar amount of its vouchers, which is currently far less than traditional public or charter schools receive per student, and schools have access to startup funds. (Disclosure: EdChoice supports Chalkbeat. For more about our funding, click here.)

But removing the waiting period would allow leaders with new ideas to find footing more easily.

“What’s missing is new models and new innovations coming for parents to choose from,” Enlow said.

Whether Hoosier parents want a system more like Milwaukee’s, where schools face additional competition for students and families may bear the costs of schools closing, is an open question. But if lawmakers lift barriers for new voucher funded schools, Indiana is likely to get a closer look from more prospective private school operators.

“Barriers to entry are going to prevent the good and the bad, but you take them away, you are going to get the good and the bad,” Ford said. “Policy is a blunt instrument.”

charter law 2.0

Sweeping charter school bill passes Tennessee legislature

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

Tennessee is close to overhauling the way it oversees charter schools.

The state Senate voted 25-1 on Wednesday to approve the so-called High Quality Charter Act, which now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature. The proposal overwhelmingly passed the House last week.

The bill would replace Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law.

“This law will ensure Tennessee authorizes high-quality charter schools for years to come,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, one of the sponsors.

The measure was developed by the State Department of Education in an effort to address the often rocky relationships between Tennessee’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The overhaul clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure.

Local districts will be able to charge an authorizer fee to cover the cost of charter oversight — something that school systems have sought since the first charter schools opened in the state in 2003.

The bill also establishes a fund of up to $6 million for facilities. That’s a boon to charter organizations that are too cash-strapped to pay rent and maintain their school buildings, said Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

“It’s really an equity issue,” Bugg said of the facilities issue. “You have charter schools serving a majority of students of color, low-income, and for them to have this gap in funding, it takes dollars away from those students.”

The proposal had widespread support from the charter sector and from officials with Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest authorizer of charter schools, which has been sorting out many of the issues addressed in the revisions.

“Future school board decisions on whether to authorize a charter school will be based on best practices, and charter schools that fail to meet performance standards will be shut down,” said Kelsey, a Germantown Republican. “I am glad that the governor reached agreement between local school districts and charter school operators over how much charter schools should pay for an administration fee.”